If a terror attack is indeed the real cause of the crash of the Russian aircraft in Egypt, it remains to be seen how the Kremlin will frame this version of events, given the current political situation in the country and Russia's direct involvement in the Syrian war.
Mourners bring flowers and other tributes to Pulkovo Airport in memory of victims of an Airbus A321 flight operated by Russian airline Kogalymavia (Metrojet) that crashed in Egypt on 31 October 2015. Pictured in this image is a photograph of one of the victims. Photo: TASS
For a different take read: "Why Russia and the West won't be teaming up against ISIS anytime soon"
The causes of the tragic downing of the Russian A321 aircraft over the Sinai Peninsula have yet to be officially determined, but the world is already beginning to point the finger at terrorism. According to British newspaper The Sunday Times, the British authorities have named the mastermind of the terror attack as Abu Osama al-Masri, the leader of the terrorist organization “Province of Sinai,” a branch of ISIS.
Meanwhile, the fact that both Russia and Britain have reacted by suspending all airline flights to Egypt indicates that the threat of new attacks is very serious.
The new danger could perhaps revive the atmosphere of September 2001, when post-9/11 many squabbles and conflicts were brushed aside in the face of the common threat. However, such an optimistic scenario is unlikely in the present circumstances.
The international situation in 2015 differs significantly from that in 2001. Today we live in a state of fundamental destabilization, in which the established world order has been shaken to its foundations. Through its actions in Ukraine and Syria, Russia has thrown down the gauntlet to the U.S.-centered international system in a bid to restore its lost superpower status.
Without discussing the prospects of such a strategy, we shall note that its implementation has already wrought significant changes, both in the nature of international relations and in the social and political situation in Russia. In addition, it has changed the perception of terror attacks, and the way their significance and possible consequences are assessed.
The essence of these changes can be summed up in one phrase: Everything has been turned upside down. What once led to unity today leads to disunity. What once demolished politicians’ approval ratings today raises them to high heaven. And what was once used for political points is now becoming a risky asset, which everyone wants rid of as quickly as possible.
It seems that many Russian, European and U.S. politicians are beginning to recognize the new reality, although official statements and even some decisions continue to follow the old, pre-crisis paradigm of behavior.
However, it is clear, for instance, that U.S. and European trust in Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot return to the level of 2001, no matter how much Russia suffers from terrorism. Similarly, it is naive to expect the threat of terror attacks to put an end to the anti-Western propaganda campaign in Russian state media.
On the contrary, there is likely to be a new wave of criticism targeted at Russia’s “Western partners,” who are not doing enough to help Russia defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) – and preserve a unified Syria led by President Bashar Assad. The procrastination and indecision of the United States and its allies will be treated in media loyal to the Kremlin as a sign of Russophobia and maybe even the secret desire to bring Russia and ISIS into conflict to let the two enemies weaken each other in mortal combat.
There are grounds for thinking that by starting a military operation in Syria, Putin had faith in the ability of the Russian security services to protect Russian citizens from terrorism. In recent years Russian security officials have repeatedly proven their worth: They have managed to keep the domestic political opposition under control, prevent terror attacks during the Sochi Olympics, and conduct an exemplary operation with the help of “little green men” in Crimea.
The A321 crash has blemished their track record, but not ruined it completely. After all, if it is established that a bomb was smuggled on board the plane, Egypt’s special services, not Russia’s, will be to blame. Nevertheless, the idea of a “small victorious war” in Syria without casualties on the Russian side is now defunct.
To neutralize this negative trend, Russian media have deployed the same scenario that Kremlin spin doctors tried and tested to perfection during the Ukraine conflict. Diverse, contradictory and often bizarre versions of what happened are being churned out in the information space, and well-known commentators and politicians are trying to outdo each other in their accusatory theatrics, causing ordinary viewers to literally clutch their heads and despair at the mind-boggling complexity of the incident.
This method of information noise works better than the cover-up tactics they used during the Soviet era. Both deprive ordinary citizens of a chance to form their own rational understanding of the situation. But the advantage of the former is that the authorities need not hurry to impose their own version, since they themselves need time to determine which interpretation of events will extract maximum benefit.
Indeed, the traditional terror mechanisms for exerting influence on public opinion in modern Russia are changing before our very eyes. In days gone by, a large-scale terror attack would provoke widespread criticism of the ruling government (for letting it happen), and also increase the public’s feeling of danger and insecurity, allowing the government to take certain restrictive measures, including on civil rights and freedoms. And, of course, the authorities always gave themselves carte blanche when it came to retribution.
However, in the case of A321 almost all these stereotypical reactions are irrelevant in the context of today’s Russia. Putin does not need carte blanche to destroy Islamic State — he already has it without any new terror attacks. Earlier statements that there would be no ground operation in Syria were most likely sincere. That being the case, rather than giving the Kremlin new political leverage, the A321 disaster merely muddies the waters for the Russian president.
Moreover, it would make little sense for Putin to introduce any new restrictions on rights and freedoms. More than enough has already been done in this area, and an additional “crackdown” could disrupt the fragile socio-political balance, which is already threatened by the economic crisis.
As for criticism of the government for not preventing the terror attack, the scenario typical for Europe and the United States should not be expected. Russian television viewers will be told that the Egyptians are to blame for everything, and some of the more zealous commentators will openly hint that patriotic tourists should take into account the international situation when planning their vacations.
As a result, the Russian military operation in Syria will be interpreted not as the cause of past and future terror attacks, but as “Putin's pre-emptive strike” without which things would be even worse. The Russian president’s ratings will climb to new heights, and anti-Western sentiment will snowball.
Thus, the crash in the Sinai Peninsula is unlikely to help Russia and the Western countries to reconcile their positions.
In an international system devoid of equilibrium, new destabilizing factors, instead of triggering mechanisms of self-preservation, only increase the chaos. The image of the common enemy, which is the topic of much debate, especially in the Kremlin, is nebulous, while the pent-up antagonisms between Russia and the West are stronger than the fear of ISIS.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.